Siobhan Baillie is a charity head of policy, contested Bermondsey and Old Southwark in last year’s general election, and is PPC for Stroud.
Earlier this month, journalists nestled patiently outside a Westminster venue waiting to talk to our Party Chairman about the latest controversial musings of Boris Johnson, the party’s omnipresent big-haired blonde. Meanwhile, this other big-haired blonde was sitting inside it – waiting to hear what the Party Chairman had to say about women in politics.
Unsurprisingly, the Johnson story commanded the news. However, the Chairman’s plans to increase female representation will transform the party long after the other is chip paper. Brandon Lewis wants 50 per cent of the candidate list to be female: it is currently only at 30 per cent. We can boast two women prime ministers, and have some brilliant female MPs, but only 20 per cent of sitting Conservative MPs are women. This compares to 45 per cent for Labour.
Increasing applications for women all over the country will not reduce the quality of candidates in any way. It is my experience that CCHQ will be honest with people about whether they are ready to progress. In my role as ambassador for the 50:50 Parliament campaign, I have spoken to many women who have been told to get more experience with their local association, stand as a councillor or practice a certain skill before they are even allowed to take the Parliamentary Assessment Board. I have to believe that many men get the same message.
My preferred approach will always be to achieve the goals set out by the Party Chairman without quotas. Most Conservative women I know are appalled at the idea of quotas and the all-women shortlists as adopted by the Labour Party. We intuitively like competition, we want to win fair and square on merit, and understand that beating good opposition is the best mandate to start a candidacy.
Like many, I am anxious to avoid waiting for the outcome of reviews. So, while the party is researching the issues, there are some simple, practical steps that we can all take.
It is not just anecdotal that women often need to be persuaded to step up, lean in and apply. Lewis quipped that men take under 48 hours to decide to apply for the Parliamentary Assessment Board, but women take approximately six to 12 months.
Most of us know women who would make a great MP right now. Please, therefore, encourage these talented women to take the first step on the road to becoming an MP and take the Parliamentary Assessment Board. The whole party should be involved in spotting and bringing on talent.
2. Signpost to skills
There are some great organisations out there that can provide guidance with the Parliamentary Assessment Board and beyond. We should all get behind these groups, provide our support and make sure that all members are aware of the support that is available.
I would encourage all potential female candidates sign up to www.5050Parliament.co.uk where they can speak to me, Dolly Theis or other Conservative women who have been through the candidate selection process. The Conservative Women’s Organisation runs a range of courses on public speaking, presentation, media, branding, networking and more. Women2Win (www.women2win.com) hold excellent networking events, skills and support groups.
After the Chairman’s speech, some women stood up to explain that their experience of associations and selections had not been positive. While this has not been my experience, the party must take heed of real life examples and ask if the processes can and should be changed to encourage greater female involvement.
How many of us, for example, have asked for feedback about the recruitment process from past and current council and parliamentary candidates? Are there ways to disrupt the normal way of doing things that could help facilitate our goal of greater female representation?
4. Be that man
This would be a long article were I to name all of the male MPs, peers, councillors and party members who have helped me and other women candidates move forward in this weird world of politics. They know who they are and how much I and other women value their time and efforts.
At a recent Women2Win event, I was given a copy of Helena Morrissey’s excellent book “A good time to be a girl“. Dame Helena founded the 30 per cent Club, designed to increase female representation on company Boards. Part of her strategy was to recruit FTSE Chairmen (and Chairwomen) to promote the campaign. The message was clear that in the corporate world getting more women onto Boards was not a women’s issue but, everyone’s issue.
The same is true of politics. A Conservative Party that draws on the talents of all of our members is a better, more robust Conservative Party. If you can offer time as a mentor or speaker or donate to any of the groups mentioned in this article, it will be time and money well spent.